Daniel Topolski, the former Oxford rowing coach, author and BBC commentator, has died at the age of 69 following a lengthy period of ill health.
A former Oxford blue himself, Topolski established his reputation as Oxford’s finishing coach for the Boat Race between 1973 and 1987, before joining the BBC as a commentator shortly afterwards.
He guided Oxford through 15 races as coach, winning 12 including 10 in a row between 1976 and 1985, with his no-nonsense leadership laying the foundations for a staggering run of success, which continued after his departure.
By 1992, Topolski had enabled Oxford to triumph in 16 out of the previous 17 races, with his most famous victory coming in 1987 when Oxford overcame the walk out of five American internationals just six weeks before the event to beat Cambridge by four lengths.
He later wrote a book about that incredible triumph, called ‘True Blue, The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny,’ which won the 1990 William Hill Sports book of the year award, and was turned into a film called True Blue.
Having inspired such a famous victory, Topolski also worked as a motivational speaker for businesses and he also won the 1993 Travelex Radio Award for his BBC series ‘Topolski’s Travels’.
After finishing his full-time coaching career in the late 1980s, Topolski went on to become a familiar voice on the BBC’s coverage of the Boat Race, along with numerous Olympic Games and World Championships, sharing commentary duties with the likes of Garry Herbert, Gerald Sinstadt, Barry Davies and Jonathan Legard.
Topolski was part of every BBC’s Olympics broadcast team from Seoul 1988 to London 2012, analysing and co-commentating on some of the most iconic moments in British Olympic history.
Despite the Boat Race moving to ITV between 2005 and 2009, Topolski continued to work for the corporation at the Olympics and World Championships, before returning to race’s commentary team in 2010 when the BBC regained the rights. His final commentary for the BBC was at the 2013 Boat Race.
Five-time Olympic gold medallist Sir Steve Redgrave, who won the last of his medals at Sydney 2000 in the men’s coxless four, led the numerous tributes, saying that “Rowing will miss him dearly and so will I.”
He added: “Dan was a good friend and a rowing man through and through, a great rower and sculler, Oxford blue, world champion, Henley steward and a loyal club man before turning his hand to coaching.
“He turned Oxford’s bad run into dominance in the 1980s through fantastic organisation and then he joined an incredible commentary team seeing Great Britain become dominant in the world.”
Former BBC commentator and colleague Barry Davies, a close friend who worked alongside Topolski on the Boat Race for many years, said: “His presence in whatever role dominated the Boat Race.
“As he demanded of his crews, he fought life to the finish, and it was a very full life. Being alongside him in the ‘one foot victory’ is an indelible memory. It was a privilege, and fun, to have known him.”
Garry Herbert, who commentated alongside Topolski at Olympic Games and World Championships for the BBC said: “I’m totally numb and in shock. I lost my wing man, none like him, one of a kind, one of the good guys.”
David Searle, executive director of the Boat Race, said: “Dan has been an ever-present part of the Boat Race since he rowed in the 1967 race. As a winning coach, his record from 1973-1987 was phenomenal.
“He had many friends within the Oxford camp given his long connection with the Boat Race but he also counted many from Cambridge as friends, too. The Boat Race has lost a real character.”
In a statement, the Oxford University Boat Club said: “His legacy is woven into the OUBC today from those victories and his continuing deep involvement with the club and the many athletes who have had the privilege of knowing him.
“Everyone at the OUBC has Daniel and his wife, Suzy, his children, Emma, Tamsin and Luke, and his sister, Teresa, in their thoughts and prayers.”
RIP Dan Topolski Oxford Blue, World champion, Oxford coach and Henley Steward. What a pleasure to share our sport with him.
— Matthew Pinsent (@matthewcpinsent) February 21, 2015
Very sad to hear about the death of Dan Topolski. A Rowing legend and excellent commentator. http://t.co/aX7ktj0wNj
— Dave Gordon (@DaveGordonSport) February 21, 2015
There was nothing Dan Topolski didn't know about rowing. Great knowledge and passion. Lovely commentary voice. A loss to towpaths everywhere
— Jonathan Legard (@legardj) February 21, 2015
Very sad to hear of Dan Topolski's death. I got him into the radio commentary team for the Boat Race in the late 70s. He was great fun.
— Peter Baxter (@PbackersPeter) February 21, 2015
Sad to hear of the death of Dan Topolski – the first man to make rowing on TV interesting and understandable. Great voice and knowledge.
— Angus Scott (@AngusScott) February 21, 2015
— Garry Herbert (GB) (@the_inner_game) February 21, 2015